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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

First Impressions: Garmin Fenix 5X

After I returned the Edge Explore to Clever Training, I no longer had a navigation-capable and radar compatible head unit on my bike. My ancient Garmin Edge 800 was still good, but I was of course, lusting after the Garmin Descent Mk I, which would add a dive computer to the mix. I had half a mind to get one when I spotted the refurbished Garmin Fenix 5X on Amazon for $330 (now $350), which was too good a deal to pass up.

Compared to my old Vivoactive HR, the Garmin Fenix 5X has:
  • Sapphire glass for superior scratch prevention (no big deal - I never scratched the HR anyway)
  • Better battery life (20 hours in GPS mode, 60 hours ultra trac mode)
  • Navigation (this is only available in the 5X and the latest 5+ series)
  • Open water swim mode
  • Compatibility with power meters (like I care!)
  • Much bigger display
  • Ability to beep when connected to the Varia Radar (a very handy feature)
  • Sailing App (untested for this review)
  • Warns you when speed/cadence/hrm sensors are running low on battery. This seems to be a function of newer units, since Bowen's Edge 25 also does the same.
  • Better integration with the RTL-510, with the Fenix turning on the light when you go for a ride, and turning it off automatically after you stop the ride.
Compared to the Edge Explore:
  • Smaller screen
  • No touch screen (which means you can't actually enter addresses as navigation destinations)
  • No incident detection
  • Compatibility with power meters
  • Hiking, swimming, and other watch-type modes
  • A real, honest to goodness barometric altimeter which doubles as a weather forecasting sensor. The unit will display gradients while climbing.
Compared to the latest model of Fenix watches (the 5+ series):
  • No music
  • No Garmin pay
  • No pulse oxymeter (only on the 5X+)
The unit arrived in an official "Garmin Refurbished" box, indicating that I had the full Garmin warranty. (The unit was sold by Amazon, so presumably there's a relationship between the two companies) out of the box, the device was about 50% charged, and I fully charged it before pairing it with my phone and wearing it.

The first thing I noticed was how heavy the watch was, compared with the Vivoactive HR. It's also huge, about as wide as my (admittedly slender) wrist:
And of course, it had a different charging cable, one that's much smaller than the Vivoactive HR's cable. On the one hand it's lighter, but on the other hand, there's no clip to keep the cable secure, and I found that the cable easily falls off when jostled, so you could easily think you've securely plugged it in for charging only to discover that you didn't or that you'd jostled it off when putting it down.

It's quite obvious that the Fenix is a serious athlete's watch first, and an activity tracker second. By default, the device won't even buzz to let you know it's time to move. (Professional athletes, for instance, are urged to rest whenever they're not actively training) It even comes with FirstBeats integration, and after every workout, will tell me how long I should rest before doing another workout. It even flatters me by telling me that I have the fitness of a 20 year old. I was really skeptical of that and then realized that I could definitely ride the pants off the 20-year-old version of me. For FirstBeats to provide active advice, you have to have worn the watch for at least a week before it starts telling you what to do. As someone who's too cheap to pay for a personal trainer, this is actually a useful feature.

It takes a bit to get used to not having a touch screen again, but in practice I discovered that I preferred it. When swimming, touch screens are worthless, and I've often found myself frustrated trying to get the Vivoactive HR to save after a swim because wet fingers on a wet screen means fingers the size of the screen at contact. With the Fenix, there's no problem. You push the stop button and the "cursor down" button and then the "select" button and it saves 100% of the time. Similarly, there's no more fat-fingered selecting "Hike" when you meant "Bike". After a while muscle memory burns in and you know exactly what to push every time.

The watch is blazingly fast when starting an activity. Basically, it'll take me longer to clip in than to start an activity on the watch. I can no longer play my "confuse the GPS by riding hard" game. For cycling, the device paired to all my ANT+ devices and never gets confused, even when I ride into the garage with one bike and immediately ride out with another. (I do this when I get home on my single and bike out with the tandem to pick up the kids, for instance) For utility cycling, I keep the watch on my wrist. The penalty for that is that you don't have an easy view of the screen (no big deal, you're utility cycling), so fortunately the device chirps loud enough when the radar detects cars coming for you. For longish rides where I do want to actually see the display, I've taken to mounting the device on a Garmin Forerunner Bike Mount. This has the penalty that the unit no longer reads your wrist for HR, so if you want HR, it's back to wearing a HRM strap. The HRM strap is more reliable anyway, so if you're in serious training mode, that's what you want. Roberto says that the "bra" nature of the strap bothers him, and recommends the Scorsche Rhythm+, which I've also heard good things about.

Having the unit mounted on a bike mount also means that you get more accurate temperature measurements (assuming you're not linked to a Tempe sensor). In theory, this means your altitude measurements will also be more accurate.

Navigation: this is the entire reason for getting this (rather than sticking with the Vivoactive HR, or getting the smaller Fenix 5S or regular Fenix 5), since it'll replace the Edge 800 for navigation while touring. While the smaller screen is worse, the idea with this unit is to perform the "last mile" type navigation, rather than Wahoo-style "pre-plan your route the night before." (The prior might work if you're Pamela Blalock, who can actually stick to a plan, but the father of 2 kids on a triplet probably can't) Like previous Garmin units, you can use the POI database, which has cities and even supermarkets and most hotels listed. This is good enough for general navigation. Since the input method doesn't allow for address entry, you have to either pan and zoom, or you have to use the SendPoints app. What I dislike about this is that you still need internet connectivity on your phone to use the website to locate your destination. But once the location is entered onto the Fenix, all navigation is done on-board, including rerouting, which means your internet connectivity only needs to be strong enough to find a location, not download an entire route with routing directions. Since those entries are now in your device database, you wouldn't need connectivity again. I expect this to be much less frustrating than depending on the on-board app to run the navigation and send the entire route to the device, which is what Wahoo does. In practice, the device chirps when it gets to your turn, and does it loudly enough that I can hear it even on a fast descent. When touring, I expect to slow down to check, of course.

What I dislike is that the turn notification takes up the entire screen, rather than including a map and turn like on the navigation units with bigger screens. There's also no microSD card for expanded storage, so you're stuck juggling map sets when you transition between continents.

The on-board navigation isn't as nice as Komoot's in terms of knowing where all the bike paths are, but you can also install the Komoot app, so all my money spent buying navigation on Komoot isn't wasted. I can still use Komoot routing on the days when I don't trust Google.

One of the nicest touches of the Fenix 5X for the touring cyclist is the enable to pause the ride and select "resume later." With the Vivoactive HR, your choice is either to keep GPS turned on while you eat lunch (or stop at a playground, etc), or to stop the ride and save it, turning your one day tour into multiple rides. This feature enables you to pause the ride, put the device into a power-saving mode (an automagically turn off your radar and other ant+ connected lights!), and then resume it later, so your Strava activity/GPS track will be one activity, rather than multiple activities on the same day. In the old days when running the Edge 800, I'd just turn off the device and turn it back on, but in recent years, Garmin's firmware (such as that on the Edge 25 or even Arturo's 810) will simply lose the ride if you do that! The Wahoo Bolt will happily resume a ride, but not without spending minutes reloading everything, something I don't have much patience for.

The Vivoactive HR's gym feature was pretty worthless, only good for recording heart rate while you're working out in the gym for lifting weights. The Fenix 5X, however, would actually count reps while you lifted, and automatically switch between rep counting and rest interval at the press of a button. Very nice! Gym rats will definitely love this feature.

What are my complaints about the unit:
  • It charges a lot slower than the Vivoactive HR. Bigger batteries take longer to charge, and there's no getting around that)
  • In practice, I don't expect it to last 20 hours. Various internet reports say to expect 16 hours on a full charge. I observe about 6% an hour battery drain, which sounds about right. (Note that I'm measuring this with 4 ANT+ devices, including the radar that makes it chirp whenever a car is behind me and light up the screen as well)
  • The screen is small enough that I might still be stuck lusting after an Edge 1030 when all is said and done, but maybe not. Unlike the Edge 1030, the Fenix 5X is a device that will stay on my wrist all year, while the Edge 1030 will only see serious use while touring. Since Boen will probably inherit the Edge 800, on tour, I'll still have a backup navigation device in a pinch.
All in all, I'm pretty impressed by the package that Fenix 5X represents. Would I have paid the MSRP $650 for it? Even at the current "Christmas sale" price of $500, I would have to think about it. At full price, the Descent at $300 more would have been my choice. But at $350 with a refurbished unit that looks brand new and comes with a full warranty? This is a no brainer compared with even the Vivoactive 3 Music edition. MyVivoactive HR will go to Bowen, and this has become my full time fitness/navigation device. That means it earns the "recommended" rating.


Fixie Pixie said...

In my defense, I don’t always stick to a plan! One of the things I disliked about the Wahoo was the inability to pan around on the device. If I see an interesting looking side road, I’d like to pan around and see if it goes anywhere and if I can incorporate it, or if construction causes an issue or no road exists where it’s shown on the map. I’ve also been known to decide a route is too busy and want to create a whole new route. I pull out my tiny iPad and remap and wirelessly download. One of the reasons I was excited to have wireless downloading is that I tend to map stuff out one day at time. I used to carry a lightweight laptop when I needed a cable to get routes on the device, but am thrilled to be able to map stuff out on a browser (not the app) on a tablet. I use the tablet for loads of stuff on tour. It’s big enough to create routes, do some blogging and reading, yet small and light.

Piaw Na said...

My phone doesn't always have good internet.

Fixie Pixie said...

Nor does mine. And I don’t like having to stop and pull out a different device. This was one of the many contributing factors for why I ditched the Wahoo and went back to Garmin. Panning, ability to reroute on the device - useful for me to find a place to eat or sleep when I get into a larger town. And a good predictive route profile.

But regarding cell service, I have found touring in Ireland that I have way better signal than riding around western Massachusetts